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From clergymen to computers—the advent of virtual palaeontology



Palaeontology was established as a science in the Victorian era, yet has roots that stretch deeper into the recesses of history. More than 2000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle deduced that fossil sea shells were once living organisms, and around 500 ad Xenophanes used fossils to argue that many areas of land must have previously been submarine. In 1027, the Persian scholar Avicenna suggested that organisms were fossilized by petrifying fluids; this theory was accepted by most natural philosophers up until the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and even beyond. The late 1700s were notable for the work of Georges Cuvier who established the reality of extinction. This, coupled with advances in the recognition of faunal successions made by the canal engineer William Smith, laid the framework for the discipline that would become known as palaeontology. As the nineteenth century progressed, the scientific community became increasingly well organized. Most fossil workers were gentleman scientists and members of the clergy, who self-funded their studies in a new and exciting field. Many of the techniques used to study fossils today were developed during this ‘classical’ period. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is to expose a fossil by splitting the rock housing it, and then conduct investigations based upon the exposed surface (Fig. 1). This approach has served the science well in the last two centuries, having been pivotal to innumerable advances in our understanding of the history of life. Nevertheless, there are many cases where splitting a rock in this way results in incomplete data recovery; those where the fossils are not flattened, but are preserved in three-dimensions. Even the ephemeral soft-tissues of organisms are occasionally preserved in a three-dimensional state, for example in the Herefordshire, La Voulte Sûr Rhone and Orsten ‘Fossil Lagerstätten’ (sites of exceptional fossil preservation). These rare and precious deposits provide a wealth of information about the history of life on Earth, and are perhaps our most important resource in the quest to understand the palaeobiology of extinct organisms. With the aid of twenty-first century technology, we can now make the most of these opportunities through the field of ‘virtual palaeontology’—computer-aided visualization of fossils.

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

A split nodule showing the fossil within, in this case a cockroachoid insect. Fossil 4 cm long (From Garwood & Sutton, in press).